Michael Saenger

Before the War: Educators in Israel/Palestine

American university administrators and professors at Jaffa, Israel (Image courtesy of author)

We have all been shaken to the core by the events of the past week. It already seems strange to think about a time before the war. The methodical and horrifying cruelty of Hamas is on full display, and the chain of events about to unfold will cause Palestinians and Israelis alike to suffer through no fault of their own. Because we work on college campuses, the vocabulary of the conflict was already prominent in our workplaces. Terms like “Hamas,” “Zionism,” “antisemitism,” “resistance,” and “liberation” are in discussions that range from the most positive, in which people listen, learn, and support each other, to the most negative, when students are harassed, berated and vilified. University administrators are accustomed to dealing with student conflict regarding Israel and Palestine. But how to cope with these conflicts now, when violence is celebrated by student activists who cling to their own “side”?

It may be useful to learn about a time in the recent past, in June of this year, when we visited the region on a study tour with colleagues from across the United States. Remembering that visit and sharing it with readers now, we can shine some light on the courage and resilience of the Israelis and Palestinians whom we met. We wish to share their perspectives, sense of hope, and tools of communication. Their wisdom may be of critical use now, as students feel echoes of the trauma of terrorism and colleges and universities figure out how to continue to put learning, compassion and inclusion at the center of their work. They may also be useful in a very different time which is sure to come: after the war.

Gaza, from the Black Arrow Memorial Site, in Israel (taken June 13, 2023)

College and university personnel have fairly predictable patterns of interaction. We tend to have our own “lanes” in Academics, Student Affairs, Marketing and Communications, and so on. Although we sometimes find friendship across lanes, usually we follow fixed routes to our offices, meetings, and classrooms.

It was therefore exceptional for an assortment of us to find ourselves standing atop a cliff in Jaffa, Israel on a hot day in June. We were twelve student life and DEI administrators from across American higher education, two professors (the authors of this article), two staff members from the Academic Engagement Network, and an Israeli tour guide. After 16 hours of travel from the US, we were doing the first activity in our 9-day study tour of Israel and Palestine.

Following our tour guide’s instructions, we stood in a circle and extended our hands to the center, one by one. The first hand represented the ancient history of the region. Each successive hand meant a significant step forward in time: a major change in inhabitants, conflict, or control. We were going to study countless maps and learn from many diverse individuals on the tour, but first we were led to imagine history metaphorically in layers, “like lasagna,” said our guide, each additional hand symbolizing a century, or several. This simple exercise made us aware of how the people represented by each layer, as well as each of us, invariably see this place differently and why, as the guide put it, “everyone wants a piece of the lasagna.” We could see that we had come not as objective observers, but as contributors to the history we had started to learn and witness, even in our first hours. And even more than that, the exercise brought home the fact that the upcoming week of experiential learning in Israel and Palestine would foster bonds among us that made those professional lanes seem remote.

Fast forward to the last day of the tour a few hours before our flight back to the United States. This time we were in a nondescript meeting room in Tel Aviv looking at photographs of the lands and peoples we had just experienced alongside the media-generated images through which most Americans, on and off college campuses, know the region: a busy market, a political rally, diverse students in a quad, an Ethiopian Jewish community, Palestinian protesters, IDF soldiers, the beach. In a final moment of reflection, we were asked a simple but profound question: “What did you think of this region before traveling here, and what do you think now?”

The trip was the culminating event of a year-long program called the Signature Seminar Series (SSS), a professional development opportunity that helps college administrators learn about the Jewish experience, antisemitism, and how to meet the challenges that engagement with Israel and Palestine presents on their campuses. The topic can be divisive, pitting students against one another and putting college personnel in the middle. The SSS does not advocate for a side – other than that of robust education, discourse, and a dialogue of mutual respect – but rather provides monthly on-line seminars during the academic year for participants to learn about topics that pertain to campus interest in these issues. The final trip enables direct contact with an array of people across race, ethnicity, religion, and politics on both sides of the Green Line.

We learned from the administrators on the trip that their responsibilities demand a great deal of sensitivity. They are pressured from all political sides, left and right, and from all directions inside and outside their institutions. Debates, protests, and teach-ins focused on Israel and Palestine can be especially tense and difficult. We also learned that DEI and other student-focused administrators are in a unique leadership position. They can help inspire productive connections across differences. They are uniquely situated to steward dicey moments by articulating the critical value of their inclusive professional commitments.

Yet these administrators often feel they don’t know enough about topics related to Israel and Palestine.

The trip provided a tremendously valuable tool for them: direct encounters with the places and the people who are often at the heart of campus conflicts. There are anti-Zionist students who embrace an urgent sense of social justice, and Jewish students who claim that an inhospitable campus atmosphere can exclude them from social justice spaces. At times, anti-Zionists accuse Jews of lacking concern for the welfare of Palestinians, and Jews with a connection to Israel can accuse anti-Zionists of antisemitism. Sometimes, the anti-Zionists are themselves Jews, further complicating the role of administrators in navigating the conflict. Yet most Americans have never actually witnessed the place in person, and often think of Israel/Palestine as a zero-sum game, no matter their politics.

This situation has been over 30 years in the making. In 1993, Students for Justice in Palestine was founded, followed by CodePink and the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation (2002), the Palestinian Campaign for Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel (2004), and Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (2005). Jewish organizations have had a presence on American campuses for much longer. Hillel was founded in 1923, and once Jewish quotas in higher education ended in the 1960s, Jewish students were fully integrated into campus life. Unfortunately sometimes this is no longer the case. Students who are figuring out their ethical and political commitments can face pressure to choose a side. Jewish students can find themselves caught in the middle.

College leaders who deal with campus discord are beholden to stay on the side of education and inquiry. This tour helped participants see that campus conflict such as this can be a “teachable moment.” They are now better equipped to handle these situations with an appreciation for the people across Israel and Palestine who are advancing a different approach than taking sides or blaming “the other” in order to produce their common future. Our goal was to move from stereotypes to complexity by replacing distance with proximity. In doing so we also moved from judgment to empathy, a shift which the brave and committed Israelis and Palestinians that we met repeatedly said is the foundation for a positive future.

We went to a West Bank refugee camp, an alternative high school where Jews and Arabs study and live together, a family-owned Palestinian bookstore in East Jerusalem, and a kibbutz on the Gaza border where residents must always be ready to run to the closest bomb shelter. We heard from a Mizrachi poet whose grandparents came from Yemen to Ottoman Palestine in the 19th century, a Palestinian social scientist doing research to advance peace efforts, an Ethiopian Jewish immigrant whose family had longed to return to Jerusalem for generations before she was able make the dream a reality, and from young people across the political and religious spectrum who did not have their lives planned out yet. We visited a neutral site in the West Bank where Palestinians and Jewish settlers come together as neighbors, discovering one another and practicing a commitment to learn to share the land, even as they visit within walking distance of one of the most dangerous places in the area. We met with a young Palestinian woman and peace activist who said, “We don’t have to change people’s minds about the conflict (multiple stories can be correct); we need to recognize in each other our shared humanity and then, when possible, circulate the gifts of this recognition.” We met people whose lives have been affected by violence and who still work every day to improve the lives of all the inhabitants of the land they love.

Perhaps most poignant for us as educators was our visits to Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Haifa University, where we met Jewish and Arab DEI and student life administrators and their students. We learned that in their classrooms, former IDF soldiers and Palestinians who have lost loved ones in the conflict sit beside each other and help each other learn. These students are facing extremely challenging differences between them with courage, warmth, and understanding. In this context, nurturing “diversity” means what Haifa University President Ron Robin articulated in his welcome to us: “Education thrives in diversity, and diversity is a characteristic of a democratic society.” Someone asked Robin if he ever “takes sides” or if he stays neutral. His answer: “We’re never neutral.  Universities are crucial to Israeli democracy because they produce our public life. We are on the side of a diverse student body and of education.”

President Robin’s words brought to mind that layered pile of hands on the first day: a jumbled, varied, and compelling representation of shared history. What started out as a metaphor for a conflicted connection to a foreign land became a way to see the whole “lasagna” and all of the interests which, layered together, can guide empathy and the sense of a shared future. We left taking inspiration from these educators and their students: if they can do it, so can we. Their deep understanding and vision is now imperative.

By Nancy Koppelman and Michael Saenger

Nancy Koppelman ( is Professor of American Studies and Humanities at The Evergreen State College

Michael Saenger ( is Professor of English at Southwestern University

About the Author
Michael Saenger is Professor of English at Southwestern University and the author of two books and the editor of another. He has been a Finalist for the Southwestern Teaching Award, and he has given talks on cultural history in Europe, Israel and North America.
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